Tiny Homes Beg Big Questions

There are two things that we know to be certain about homelessness:

  1. Someone who has a home is not homeless.
  2. The United States has a major affordable housing crisis.

While homelessness programs continue to do the heroic and creative work to connect people with the housing they need, two more realities remain: there simply is not enough housing for everyone who needs it, and the 7-million-unit gap is not going to be filled with new construction anytime soon due to high costs, neighborhood opposition, and inadequate financing.

With that in mind, there has been a rising chorus from countless communities anxious to explore Tiny Homes as a solution. Tiny Homes – and the “village” structure that is commonly proposed for siting them – appear to be an affordable option that can be put up quickly and added to a community’s inventory of affordable housing. In fact, many a local elected official has eagerly proposed Tiny Homes as a virtual panacea for ending homelessness in their communities – the missing piece to make housing affordable and get people off the streets.

Of course, like so many things in our work, it’s not that simple.

Yes, we absolutely need creative housing solutions – not only as part of every community’s response to homelessness, but to broadly meet housing needs everywhere. And, yes, anything that reduces the timeline and the costs of supplying housing is critically important. Tiny Homes and Tiny Home villages do hold some potential to help serve these severely unmet needs.

But the challenge lies in the details. While Tiny Homes have potential to create housing stability for people who are unhoused, any consideration of them must be part of a community’s broader strategy to provide permanent, affordable housing. Below are questions that every community needs to answer when considering this strategy.

Questions about Tiny Home Structures:

  1. What kind of Tiny Home is being proposed? There are several different types of structures that could be considered Tiny Homes, and the term is likely to mean different things to different people. The models highlighted on HGTV can be fabulous, but they’re a far cry from the modest – and often insufficient – options offered to people experiencing homelessness. Any proposal must be specific on the vision for how these homes will look and function, and that vision must be communicated clearly.
  1. Are the structures safe, dignified, and livable? Are the structures up to code? Have there been past safety issues associated with them (such as patterns of fires or related hazards), and if so, what has the manufacturer done to address them? Are they appropriately insulated from the cold and offer safe ventilation in the heat? Do they offer privacy and security? Are they ADA compliant? Do the structures offer basic living amenities such a kitchen area and a bathroom with running water? Do they look and feel like housing, or more like a garden shed? Getting people into housing means upholding their dignity, and any Tiny Home structure must be a desirable option for doing so.
  1. Is the design informed by people with lived experience of homelessness? Far too often, housing and shelter solutions have been advanced without considering input from the people for whom they are intended. Before banking on Tiny Homes, it is critical that people experiencing homelessness (or who have experienced homelessness) have weighed in on the design and whether it meets their needs. Without this guidance, Tiny Homes cannot be considered a true solution.

Questions about Tiny Home Villages:

  1. Where is the Tiny Home village being sited? Zoning is a frequent obstacle in the effort to create affordable housing for everyone who needs it. This is equally true in siting Tiny Home villages, resulting in limited options for their location. But as with all housing, location matters. It is essential to consider whether the village will be within convenient proximity to public transportation, grocery stores, employment opportunities, and similar community amenities. Tucking it away in a far-flung industrial zone that is segregated from the rest of the community is not only impractical, it is unfair and unjust.
  1. How will the Tiny Home village operate? Will the village offer permanent housing? Transitional housing? Or is it something more akin to shelter or a sanctioned encampment? Are stays in the homes time limited, and if so, what is the strategy for exiting people to permanent housing?

    Communities also need to decide on ownership and governance models for the village. Will tenants be involved in the governance, and if not, will they live by different rules than if they were staying in a traditional apartment? How will operating services such as home maintenance, sanitation, and security be provided for residents? What will be the system for addressing rule violations or disputes between neighbors?

    Each of these questions will have a major impact on the cost, operations, and outcomes of the initiative.

  1. Who is being prioritized for Tiny Homes, and will the appropriate services be offered to them? Voluntary services can be critical to a person’s return to housing. If vulnerable populations such as people who are chronically homeless or older adults are being prioritized, contracting for services must be fully accounted for.

    As with all decisions made within the homelessness sector, it is also critical that racial equity is integrated into service delivery and housing placements. Are the people housed in Tiny Homes truly representative of a community’s homeless population? If the criteria for prioritization does not take race equity into account, it is likely to only perpetuate existing disparities within the system.

  1. What’s the real cost? The construction cost and timeline of a Tiny Home village can initially be appealing, but the true cost includes the infrastructure that will be required to sustain the project. This is especially true if the village is on private land. By the time services, sanitation, staffing, and security are accounted for (to name just a few of the line-item costs), the final bill could be significantly higher than the low cost of the units themselves.

Getting Creative with Limited Housing Options

It is certainly time to bring as many affordable housing solutions to the table as we can – not just for people experiencing homelessness, but for the even larger population of people struggling under the weight of rising rents.

Tiny Homes are just one option. But there are several other options that need just as much enthusiasm.

We should encourage more people to share housing. We need to bring more Single Room Occupancy hotels and boarding housing online. We need to explore opportunities to convert office and commercial space into housing, as has been done so brilliantly with hotels and motels. And we desperately need to expand the Housing Choice Voucher program. Each of these will benefit not only people experiencing homelessness, but the broader population of people at risk of becoming homeless.

Tiny Homes could be part of the mix – but they are not the solution on their own. Any investment in them requires serious strategic considerations. Despite their potential, we must strive to create permanent, affordable housing options, and avoid anything that creates substandard or segregated housing for people experiencing homelessness.

Tiny Homes are not small decisions.